Even before Donald Trump’s extraordinary victory in the US Presidential election, two narratives had already been established about his political rise. His supporters saw it as an insurgent movement of the little people against the elite. Liberal opponents viewed it rather as the revolt of what Hilary Clinton infamously dubbed ‘the deplorables’: the rage of racists and bigots fuelled by hate.
Neither narrative is true. But both possess a pinch of truth.
The predominant view of the difference between Trump and Clinton supporters is in terms of categories such as race, gender, age, education and religion. 58% of whites voted for Trump, while 88% of African Americans backed Clinton. Trump was supported by 53% of men, Clinton by 54% of women. Similarly 55% of over-45s voted Trump, while 55% of 18-29 year olds chose Clinton. Three-quarters of those educated to postgraduate level supported Clinton; barely a third backed Trump. 81% of white evangelicals voted Trump, just 16% backed Clinton.
At first sight all this seems to give weight to the ‘whitelash’ thesis, the idea that Trump rose to power on a wave of rage from white, male Christians. The real story is, however, more complex. If we look not at the aggregate figures but at the shifts in support, we can tell a different story.
The majority of white voters, for instance, may have supported Trump, but he gained only 1% more white support than did Mitt Romney in 2012. Similarly only 1% fewer women voted for Trump than for Romney. On the other hand, 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump, an 8% swing compared to 2012. As for all the claims about millennials coming out against Trump, there was in fact a 5% swing towards Trump among 18-29 year olds, but a 4% swing towards Clinton among over-65s.
Insofar as there was a lash, then, it was a far more complex one than a simple ‘whitelash’. One key change was in how the poor voted. 53% of those earning less than $30,000 voted Clinton, while only 41% voted for Trump. These figures have led some to dismiss the idea that Trump’s success was rooted in working class hatred of the Washington establishment. Butwhat the figures show is that among the poorest sections of American society, who traditionally overwhelmingly vote Democrat, there was a huge 16% swing towards Trump as compared to 2012.
This shift relates to perhaps the most striking difference between Trump and Clinton voters. More than three-quarters of Trump supporters feel financially worse off today than in 2012, 72% of Clinton supporters feel better off. And asked about whether life for the next generation, 59% of Clinton supporters thought it would better, 63% of Trump supporters thought it would be worse.
That sense of pessimism about both the present and the future has become emmeshed with a sense, too, of being politically abandoned and voiceless, of Washington being deaf to their interests. An exit poll on Tuesday suggested that 72% of voters thought that ‘the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful’, 61% felt that ‘traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me’, and three-quarters believed that ‘America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful’. Many have become hostile to the policies associated with the liberal elite, and with their deafness to working class interests, such as globalization, free trade, less restrictive immigration.
America, like most Western societies, has in recent years become both more socially atomized and riven by identity politics. Atomization has played into the hands of the deracinated middle class. Identity politics have helped foster communities defined by faith, ethnicity or culture.
For many working class communities these two processes have helped both corrode the social bonds that once gave them strength and identity and dislocate their place in society. At the same time, many within such communities have come to see their economic and social marginalization primarily as a cultural loss, turning, like many other groups in the USA, to the language of identity to express their discontent. The reframing of class in the language of identity politics has inevitably created hostility towards those regarded as culturally different. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and to Muslims, the increasing desire to protect borders and defend national culture. It is not that Americans have suddenly become bigots and xenophobes. It is rather that genuine political and economic grievances have come to take bigoted forms.
The response of liberals and progressives has only helped to sharpen this trend. Rather than take seriously the grievances of such working class communities while also challenging the bigotry, they abandoned those communities while also damning whole sections of the electorate as bigots, racists and unredeemable. For many within traditional working class communities, the only people who seem to listen to them are reactionaries such as Trump. Many Trump supporters are indeed racist. But many are not. In 2012, more than a third of Barrack Obama’s support came from white voters without a degree; outside the Southern states that figure rose to almost half. And as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn put it, ‘Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters’ and that the ‘election was decided by people who voted for Obama in 2012’. One of the most telling statistic of election night was that while Trump’s total vote was around a million down from the Republican figure in 2012, Clinton had nearly six million fewer voters than Obama. Why? Because while Obama embodied for many ‘hope’, Clinton seemed to represent perfectly the Washington insider, deaf to working class cries and interested largely in the welfare of the rich and powerful. This was not, as Nate Cohn put it, ‘a simple racism story’.
But if the rise of Trump to the White House represents anger and disaffection with the elite, it is no popular revolt. It is rather an expression of the absence of real revolt. Four out of five Trump voters saw the ability to bring change as his most important quality. Trump can be seen as an agent of change only because real agents of change, progressive social movements that can truly transform people’s lives, have largely eroded.
What we are witnessing is a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it. The political elite is so disengaged from the electorate that it failed to recognize the depth of anger and disaffection from mainstream institutions and its party machines have become so rusty that they could not check the Trump surge. And oppositional movements are so weakened that Trump can be seen by many as an agent of change.
It is this dual crisis that is unstitching politics, and not just in America. The same phenomenon is at play in Europe, driving the success of the reactionary populist groups from the Sweden Democrats to the Front National in France. And globally, too, from Turkey to India, from Egypt to South Africa, the old order is coming unstitched while opposition movements that have emerged to give voice to that disaffection are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity, and are often sectarian or separatist in form. As in Europe and the USA there is a hole where progressive social movements should be.
There have been many apocalyptic prognostications in the wake of Trump’s success. His victory, many claim, will lead to everything from the rise of fascism to the end of the West. The real issue lies less with Trump himself, than with the dual crisis of the elite and of opposition movement. It is how we address this, and in particular whether we are able to build real movements for change, that will shape the future, and not just in the USA.